Be Kind To Your Local NDN DJ!

Indians on the airwaves

by Arigon Starr
News From Indian Country

With your voice so clear
Will you find me here?
Oh, I need to hear
Your voice
In the Air

— Navajo Radio by Arigon Starr

When I was a young kid listening to records in my bedroom, I would pretend I was a radio DJ with interesting stories about the songs and the artists. I read up about the latest musical sensations in Tiger Beat and 16 – and eventually graduated to Rolling Stone and Creem. Before the I-Pod there was radio. You had to tune into your favorite local station to hear the latest music.

After I relocated to Hollywood to work in the entertainment industry, I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about KTNN-AM, a Native American radio station owned by the Navajo Nation in Window Rock, Arizona. Their big coup was broadcasting the Phoenix Suns’ basketball games in Navajo. What struck me about the station was that many of their listeners had no electricity or running water in their homes and that the radio station was a lifeline to the outside world. My urban upbringing didn’t prepare me for that realization or that there was an entire network of Native radio stations.

As I was writing songs for my first CD project, I thought back to all of the cool songs that have been written about radio. You know them – “On the Radio” by Donna Summer or even punk gods The Ramones’ “Do You Remember Rock & Roll Radio” are great examples. I fashioned “Navajo Radio” as a tribute to the radio programmers who spotlight Native music of all kinds.

Little did I know how well I would get to know my Native radio stations!

In the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting many different stations and talking with hosts who sponsor their own hours on community and/or public radio stations. Just this afternoon I visited with Eugene Johnson and John Talley of Portland, Oregon’s KBOO-FM. They were generous enough to fit me in during their lively call-in program that featured a discussion of all things Makah and whaling. Believe me, they gave me an education and helped me understand the issues behind the recent incident in Neah Bay, Washington. Where else but on a Indian-themed radio show would you expect to hear “our” point of view?

The fabulous folks at KWSO-FM in Warm Springs sponsored, in association with the Museum at Warm Springs, a wonderful afternoon of Native dancers, singers and me for their first annual Native American Arts & Culture Festival. Elders, kids, hip-hoppers and the Native flute were highlighted. To my surprise, the program manager from KYNR-AM in Yakama, Washington, drove one hundred and fifty miles to see the show and do a short radio interview with me. That is dedication.

Kathy Sahmie, one of the programmers at KUYI-FM in Hopi, Arizona, made me marvel at her dedication to the station and Hopi community. Even though she’s a graduate of Bacone College and the University of Oklahoma, she lives with her son in a trailer on the reservation with no running water. This is fairly commonplace out in Arizona, but what blows me away is that Kathy and others at KUYI make the sacrifice to perform their on-air duties plus raise family and deal with something as basic as getting water as a normal routine.

Radio folks more likely than not have a wonderful sense of humor, feeling of inclusion and a passion about the community. Many of the folks who are on the air are volunteers or receive few funds for the service they provide. You can always count on them to give you the latest local scoop or clue you in on who are the up-and-coming artists.

This ever-present excitement is in the eyes of deejay Garland Kent, Jr. who sings with Yellow Hammer and has hosted The Native American Music Spotlight Show for the past six years on Ponca City’s KIXR-FM. That drive is in the voice of Robin Carneen, who hosts NAMAPAAH: First Peoples Radio on KSVR-FM in Mount Vernon, Washington. You can hear the care and quality of work by Jim DeNomie, Gregg McVicar, John Gregg, Susan Braine and radio stations like KPFK, KIDE, WOJB and so many more. They understand the power and immediacy of keeping culture alive via the airwaves.

I heard a story from one of my radio pals who encountered a more “established” Native Artist who was out promoting their music at an Indian conference. When she introduced herself as a Native radio programmer and offered to help promote their music, the artist rebuffed her by saying, “Hey, we’re going big time. We don’t need to worry about Native radio anymore.”

Country songwriter Harlan Howard summed it up best with his lyrics for “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down!”

You may be their pride and joy
But they’ll find another toy
And they’ll take away your crown
Pick me up on your way down

However “big time” Native artists may become – let’s not forget the on-air heroes who’ve supported our music from the get-go. Viva Native Radio!

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